15/03/2022 General News
Marc Knighton of Keys Auctioneers & Valuers says that African art is finding a new following in western salerooms.
The auction room is a cosmopolitan place, where art and artefacts from all sorts of cultures go under the hammer, from Chinese ceramics to aboriginal nulla-nullas, Indian furniture to South American carvings. In a world which seems to be increasingly fractured, it is great to see that so many bidders are willing to open their minds and their collections to items from right across the globe.
When it comes to art, one part of the world which is enjoying something of a boom in popularity is Africa, and in particular art from the second half of the 20th century.
One of the biggest champions of African art was a white South African, whose life spanned from 20 years before apartheid was ingrained in his country’s political system until 15 years after it was swept away.
Cecil Skotnes (1926–2009) was not just one of the most celebrated South African artists of the 20th century, but he was also responsible for encouraging huge numbers of black African artists, championing their artistic traditions, but also opening them up to a wider world – at the same time opening up the wider world to the wealth of artistic talent which exists on that continent.
Skotnes was born to a Norwegian father in East London, and spent his childhood living on a sprawling Johannesburg estate. But when he was 17 he decided to leave school and join the South African Army, and it was this wartime service that gave him the opportunity to travel to Europe, and in particular to discover Florence. After the war he spent nine months in London, immersing himself in the Egyptian, and pre-classical Greek art in the British Museum.
On his return to South Africa, he took over the Polly Street Art Centre, and under his guidance this became a centre for young black artists – this at the height of the apartheid era. His lifelong mission was to nurture talent and encourage creativity, introducing his proteges to the European influences he had himself discovered. But he remained resolutely wedded to the traditions of his homeland, always using indigenous wood for his block prints, for example, and developing earth pigments for his painting.
His work was recognised in many ways, including by the award of a gold medal from the State President for his contribution to the de-racialisation of art.
His artistic legacy has survived him, with many African artists embracing different artistic traditions – including European ideas – into their work, although it is unmistakeably African. These kind of pictures and now increasingly sought-after in the saleroom, combining the finest African traditions with a style that perhaps make them more accessible to the western eye.
Skotnes’ work sells for thousands now, but his influence is there is many other works which sell for more affordable prices, often without any attribution.